Maldives to Capetown
The Indian Ocean turned on us the morning we pointed the bow toward the Seychelles. Despite moderate wind, a distant low-pressure disturbance created vicious cross seas 12 to 16 feet high. Bucking the contrary current, Whale Song reared and plunged onward at 6 knots. Three days later, puffy good-weather clouds floated over Mahé Island and Victoria, the port capital of the Seychelles. Due to the British and French colonial past, European influence here is still palpable. The residents speak both French and English, useful for the booming charter business on crewed and bare boats. The islands rise in peaks in this world of rock and boulder — even underwater granite monoliths resemble cathedrals, with schools of fish meandering through them like guided tourist groups. Birds rule the skies: tropicbirds, noddies, fairy terns, shearwaters. On Ile Aride nesting birds raised such racket that I swear I could hear them under water. The nature preserve on Ile Curieuse maintains a population of Aldabra Reef tortoises as large as the famous reptiles of the Galápagos. The tortoises enjoy the shade under palms that bear coco de mer, nuts shaped like female buttocks. The largest coco de mer can weigh 80 pounds. Until the European discovery of the Seychelles in the late 18th century, the rare nuts, lacquered and bejeweled, resided in private galleries.
The Indian Ocean shrank as we drew a bead on Madagascar. Mayotte Island, the French possession in the Comoros, has airline connections to Europe and, despite Comoro women wrapped in flowing colors, bore the air of a worn-out colony. Madagascar, on the other hand, looked irresistible even before we landed. Pink streaks slashed the dawn sky, and beneath, on lazy swells, a fleet of crescent sails loomed white against distant blue hills. All along the thousand miles of the western shore of this fourth largest island on Earth, hundreds of the local sailing vessels carried cargo and passengers. The variety of craft reflected the island’s tangled history. Outriggers came with the first settlers from as far as Borneo; Arab traders brought the lateen sail rig by way of East Africa; and gaff-rigged schooners arrived with the French colonists.
As Tulear, southernmost port in Madagascar, slid into the haze astern, steep beam seas ran from the southeast into the Mozambique Channel. Six hundred miles later the Agulhas Current flowing down the African coast gripped Whale Song and pushed her south at 11.5 knots against head seas. A welcome diversion, dozens of dolphins burst from the crests of rising swells and headed east, and above them raced squadrons of terns. Near shore just before Cape Town, the wind died, the sea flattened. Only whales, blowing and breaching, disturbed the calm, glassy surface that melted into pale sky.
The city of Cape Town felt more like Europe. Yet within a short drive we saw the worst of South Africa (the cardboard townships) and the best (Table Mountain National Park). Two ostriches crossed the road, looking down on the stopped cars. A male baboon charged into our car, yanked out my camera bag and ran — lenses, flashes, memory cards spilling down the road. Finding no food, he abandoned the bag on the edge of a cliff. There, at 34 degrees south, Africa is cool, and a colony of penguins thrives on this coast washed by the Southern Ocean. This cold current sweeps up the western shore of Africa, causing a persistent haze to hide Namibia’s high dune shores fronted by shoals. Called the Skeleton Coast, it produced many shipwrecks in the pre-GPS age. Even today only diamond mining ships come near it.